The Zackenberg valley in Northeast Greenland
© Lars Holst Hansen
The Zackenberg valley in Northeast Greenland, summer 2018. Huge amounts of snow still covered the ground in late June, where the snow-covered season usually is coming to an end.

"2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to — and potentially beyond — their limits."

A new study published Tuesday looked at the implications of extreme snowfall in the Arctic in 2018 — the kind of increased precipitation event scientists link to climate change — and researchers say the scenario could be a harbinger of how ecosystems in the region will be negatively affected by a rapidly warming planet.

"The result was an almost complete reproductive failure of plants and animals of all sizes," the authors wrote.

The takeaway for arctic ecosystems, the authors found, is that "changes in precipitation may prove as crucial as changes in temperature — if not even more."

For the study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers focused on the monitoring site of Zackenberg in Northeast Greenland. In 2018, the Arctic — including the High Arctic where the Zackenberg facility is — saw unusually large amounts of snow. That meant there was a significant delay in snow melt, which in turn made it difficult for plants to grow and for animals to access resources.

The result? The "most complete reproductive failure encountered in the terrestrial ecosystem during more than two decades of monitoring," said the study.

In plants, because flowering happened later, seeds were unable to set before frost came. The abundance of migratory shorebirds was also low. The birds made nests late, so the eggs that hatched did so late. As such, the young birds had insufficient time to develop ahead of their migration.

"The severity of the 2018 conditions were evidenced not only by the near-complete lack of breeding amongst shorebirds," noted the researchers, "but also by five shorebirds found starved to death in 2018 — a phenomenon never encountered before."

Among the mammals that took a hit as a result of the extreme snowfall were the Arctic fox — no cubs were observed — and muskox — almost no calves were observed.

"One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species," explained lead author Niels Martin Schmidt of Denmark's Aarhus University.

"The worrying perspective," he continued, "is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to — and potentially beyond — their limits. Our study shows that climate change is more than 'just' warming, and that ecosystems may be hard hit by currently still rare but extreme events."

"Only by keeping an eye on full arctic ecosystems," said Schmidt, "can we understand the havoc brought by the changing climate."